Rising entertainment form finds way to Morgan Hill

CHALLENGING THE MIND Janelle Gallagher (from left), Rebecca Hargreaves and Hilary Andrews are the founders of MPower Escape Rooms, which is located in downtown Morgan Hill. Photo: Erik Chalhoub

When your friend goes missing in the bayou while searching for supernatural sightings, the wise thing to do is go looking for them without any preparation, of course.

A colleague and I found our way to a cabin at the edge of a swamp, where various creepy creatures crawled and soared their way into sticky situations. 

But perhaps that friend truly did find something supernatural here. It was obvious that someone took great pains to deter unsuspecting visitors, with locks of various digits, letters and other combinations holding a tight grip on doors that could lead the way out.

We surveyed the room, looking for patterns or anything else out of the ordinary that could provide a hint of what was going on here. Our hunt for clues revealed a set of numbers, possibly for one of the locks. 

The question was, however, which one? And if we couldn’t figure it out, would we ever leave the bayou alive?

Thankfully, the “bayou” was actually in downtown Morgan Hill, on the second floor of an office building that MPower Escape Rooms calls home.

Friends launch endeavor

Hilary Andrews, Janelle Gallagher and Rebecca Hargreaves are the creators of MPower Escape Rooms, which opened at 17415 Monterey Road, Suite 207 in late 2018.

An “escape room” is exactly as it sounds: a group is locked in a room and must find hidden clues and solve puzzles in order to leave, usually within a 60-minute time period. The term “escape” might be a little exaggerated, though, as participants are never truly locked in the room and can leave at any time.

The three Morgan Hill friends, with backgrounds in design and business, began setting up their own escape rooms for their childrens’ birthday parties.

“All of us enjoyed it,” Hargreaves said. “It was fun for us and we started to do a bit more.”

The trio knew they wanted to start a business together. In early 2018, they began floating ideas, but they kept returning to that one birthday activity.

“This idea was one that stuck,” she said.

MPower Escape Rooms, along with its parent company MPower Ideas, was born.

The “m” has multiple different meanings: “Morgan Hill,” “mindpower” and “mom” (in recognition of the three mothers who formed the business) are just some of the terms.

“We wanted to empower people to feel successful,” Andrews said.

MPower Escape Rooms opened in November 2018 with one room, The Cabin (which the author of this article was unsuccessful in escaping, even with the valuable hints from Hargreaves). The Secret, where participants must keep a scientist’s breakthrough from falling into the wrong hands, opened in May. A third room is scheduled to launch in the summer.

“It’s always changing,” Hargreaves said. “We always have new ideas, new designs, new puzzles. It’s non-stop.”

The partnership of the three friends has proved invaluable, as all three each play to their unique strengths in order to not only design the creative rooms, but to keep growing the business.

“The partnership is really important,” Gallagher said. “We balance each other out.”

International phenomenon

Escape rooms have exploded in popularity over the past decade, partly driven by the millennial generation’s desire to seek out unique experiences they cannot get online.

Real Escape Game, which was developed in 2007 in Japan, is considered one of the first modern escape rooms. The game made its way to the United States in 2012, and the following year, Seattle-based Puzzle Break opened, which is billed as the first American-based escape room company.

According to EscapeSpy.com, which lists escape rooms by area, there are now more than 14,000 escape room venues worldwide.

The phenomenon has fostered an entire community of enthusiasts, who travel all over the country, and the world, to find the best of the best.

While the industry is trending toward incorporating more technology into new escape rooms, the charm of MPower’s The Cabin lies in its relatively “low tech” atmosphere and physical keys. Andrews, Gallagher and Hargreaves are unsure when, or if, they will retire their popular first room as their business grows.

“A lot of people love that room,” Andrews said. “They love how they feel when they leave that room.”

MPower, which is currently the only escape room company between San Jose and Salinas, is being discovered by enthusiasts from around the state, according to Hargreaves.

It’s not just for the hardcore enthusiasts, birthday parties or millennials. Gallagher said many corporate groups have tried out the escape rooms as team-building exercises, and all ages have tried the mind-bending challenges.

MPower is also working on a summer camp for children that will teach them how to build their own puzzles.

As Morgan Hill continues to work on revitalizing its downtown to attract foot traffic, it is businesses such as MPower that will be critical to reaching that goal.

“This is a great business that helps downtown,” Andrews said. “It not only attracts the local community, but we are getting people from outside to patronize downtown restaurants and shops.”

MPower Escape Rooms can be booked at $30 per person. For information, visit mpowerescape.com.

Erik Chalhoub

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About Erik Chalhoub
Erik Chalhoub is the editor of South Valley. Prior to joining the magazine in March 2019, he worked for seven years at The Pajaronian in Watsonville, the last four as managing editor.